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Editor’s Note: There is no denying that families left behind by victims of Rodrigo Duterte’s violent war on drugs want justice. In June 2021, then-justice secretary and now Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra said it would be difficult to file cases unless families and witnesses come forward. But in the context of the climate of impunity in the Philippines, pursuing legal cases at the local level means exposing themselves to harassment – or worse, death – especially in cases of anti-illegal drug operations where killers of their loved ones are part of their own communities. In this series, Rappler revisits some families who have chosen not to rely on domestic mechanisms and instead pin their hope on the International Criminal Court.
First of 3 parts
MANILA, Philippines – Rodrigo Duterte’s violent war on drugs transformed evenings in the Philippines from quiet endings of busy days to horror punctuated by gunshots and screams.
These nightly incidents in the poorest communities across the country unfolded so similarly that residents already knew exactly what was about to happen.
The sight of a roving multi-cab meant another anti-illegal drug operation was about to take place, that police would swarm one of the houses, and that one or two of their neighbors would not survive the night. In between these, they would hear begging, and from the police: “O, nanlaban siya (he fought back).”
But there were also nights when deaths would be prefaced by the presence of a stranger. This unfamiliar visitor was sometimes seen walking along narrow alleys, or plying busy streets on a motorcycle. He usually wore a cap and dark clothes, enough to blend in the shadows that marked the walls of shanties where below-minimum wage earners rested before another day of hard work.
This was the setting when the life of Ruben* was taken one evening in September 2016. He was out watching television in front of a generous neighbor’s house, with two young grandchildren by his side – a nightly routine since they did not have electricity in their own home.
The family was in the middle of watching a Filipino teleserye when an unidentified man appeared in their periphery. One of them thought he was just a passerby, but even before he could finish this thought, the man pulled out a gun and shot Ruben point blank. The father of eight was killed by one bullet to the head.
“Pagdating ko galing sa bahay ng anak ko, may humarang na sa akin at sinabi na binaril nga ang asawa ko habang nanonood ng TV kaya tumakbo na ako pero wala na, hindi ko na siya naabutan,” Vera, his wife, recalled to Rappler in an interview.
(I just arrived from my child’s house when someone intercepted me and told me that my husband was gunned down while watching TV. So I immediately ran to the place of the incident, but I wasn’t able to catch him alive.)
Ruben was only in his early 40s and was working tirelessly to support not just his family, but also his grandchildren who lived with them. Vera said her husband sacrificed to make sure that none of them went to sleep on an empty stomach. He was the epitome of a model family man, she said, despite his usual flaws.
The bullet that took the life of Ruben did not exit his head. If it did, it would’ve also hit and killed one of his grandchildren, Vera recalled being told.
“Siguro hinayaan na lang niya at ng Panginoon na hindi na lumabas para siya na lang talaga ang mamatay at hindi ang apo namin na napakabata pa,” she said.
(Maybe he and the Lord just let it be, that he’d sacrifice himself, just so our grandchild, who was so young, would be saved.)
‘We know it’s police’
Ruben is just one of the thousands slain, vigilante-style, a term used when perpetrators are unidentified, as police simultaneously waged Duterte’s violent war on drugs. By August 15, 2016, a month before he was gunned down, the Philippine National Police (PNP) already identified at least 899 “deaths under investigation (DUI).”
Then-PNP chief and now Senator Ronald dela Rosa, the architect of the drug war, tagged DUI as those “just found floating along canals…dumped along roads with their hands tied and their faces, eyes, and mouths taped…also those killed by riding-in-tandem…or were just shot.”
This number would eventually balloon to thousands as Duterte continued to yell kill orders from the presidential pulpit. He left office with a death toll of 6,252 in police operations alone, while human rights groups estimate the number to be between 27,000 to 30,000 to include victims of vigilante-style killings.
It did not matter whether or not Ruben was killed by police. All deaths, his wife insisted, were borne out of Duterte’s order to slaughter his own countrymen. A day before Ruben was shot, Duterte said the killings of suspected drug users are justified because they cannot be rehabilitated anymore. “What’s your problem about killing people, criminals destroying the next generation?” he told critics of his drug war.
But Vera remains unwavering in her belief that police killed her husband. Their neighbors said the suspect’s face was familiar. Perhaps among the state agents who routinely roamed the place, one said. Another recalled seeing the man riding his motorcycle around the neighborhood.
A few weeks after Ruben’s burial, his family was awakened by loud knocks. It happened twice and both times no familiar voice followed. When it first happened, the entire family discreetly slipped through a narrow opening and into the house of a relative to elude whoever was waiting outside. The second time, the older children desperately urged their mother to leave their home and hide.
“Natakot kami talaga kasi ang nasa isip ko noon ay baka ito na, babalikan na ‘ko, baka isusunod na kaming lahat,” Vera said. “Inisip ko iyong mga anak ko, kung mawawalan na rin sila ng nanay, ano na mangyayari sa kanila?”
(We really got scared because I was already thinking, this is it, they’re coming after me, they’re going to finish us all. I was worried for my children, if they lost their mother too, what would happen to them?)
Vera heeded her children’s request and went away, long enough to let the heat die down. They had to grieve for her husband while separated by distance, a sacrifice that had to be made to prevent her children waking up one day as full orphans.
Vera eventually went back and took the reins as both breadwinner and homemaker. She was left to raise their children alone, an all-too familiar predicament for many of the Philippines’ widows left behind by victims of Duterte’s drug war.
“Napakahirap na po ng buhay kasi [kay Ruben] lang kami umaasa, kaya namasukan na lang ako kasi hindi naman puwede na walang makain ang mga anak ko, pero nahirapan din ako kaya nagtayo na lang ako ng maliit na tindahan para kahit papaano may panggastos,” she said.
(Life is hard now because we depended solely on Ruben. I tried to work full-time so my children would have something to eat, but I had a hard time too, so I just opened a small store just to have money to get by.)
‘Why would I trust them?’
Ruben’s family tried to live a normal life after his death. But trauma and fear permeated their every day. Inside their home and among themselves, a hole made itself more and more apparent as years went by.
Three years after, in 2019, police visited their home and asked to see Vera. The mere sight of the police was enough to scare the widow, since people in the community continued ending up dead in operations. But she was also more confused: Why only now after all this time? The family did not even hear from police in the immediate aftermath of Ruben’s killing.
Vera said that the police who approached her did not show results of an investigation, nor assured the family that they investigated Ruben’s death. The men in uniform just asked one thing: Do you want us to help you solve what happened to your husband and file a case?
The police reportedly had with them a waiver indicating that the signatory would no longer pursue a legal case. Instead of information that could’ve helped Vera choose the best course of action, they had her make a decision right at that very moment.
“Sabi ko na lang sa kanila na hindi ako magdedemanda kasi wala naman akong kakayahan at iniisip ko kapakanan ng mga anak ko,” she recalled. “Pinirmahan ko na lang na hindi na ako magrereklamo, hindi na raw ako magdedemanda, wala na akong gagawin na kung ano.”
(I told them I would not file a case anymore because I don’t have the resources, and I was thinking about the well-being of my children. I just signed the waiver, saying I would no longer complain, file a case, or do anything else.)
Vera’s experience is not unique. The Philippine Human Rights Information Center, a civil society organization that has documented the drug war, recorded at least 13 families who were in similar incidents over the years. Only one family did not sign the waiver.
At that point, Vera was already in touch with other groups that have been assisting other drug war widows. This was a bid to counter the lack of accountability and transparency under the Duterte administration, an effort to put on record the bloody violence that the former president unleashed in the country.
Vera said she trusts these lawyers and human rights workers more than any government institution. At the end of the day, her lack of trust lies in the reality that the police who claim to want to investigate her husband’s death were behind the legitimate police operations that have killed at least 6,252 people since 2016.
They were also the ones whom Duterte promised to protect against liability in the conduct of the drug war, a vow he often repeated throughout his administration. In June 2022, two weeks before his term ended, Duterte publicly said that he “takes full responsibility for it all,” even ordering his men to tell people it was him who ordered the killings.
“Paano ka magtitiwala sa mga pulis kung ganyan ang ginawa nila, hindi lamang sa asawa ko, iyong walang awang pagpatay sa ibang mga tao pa?” Vera said.
“Alam ko naman na sila ang pumatay sa asawa ko, buo ang loob ko na sila ang nasa likod noon, so hahabulin ko iyong pulis na nasa paligid lang din namin?” Vera added.
(How can I trust them if they mercilessly killed not just my husband but also others? I know it was them who killed my husband, so what, I would run after the police who are still around us?)
Pinning hopes on the ICC
Vera’s mistrust of the police is not unfounded as many families themselves reported harassment in the aftermath of their loved ones’ death. But beyond this, there is also still not much hope in domestic mechanisms. Only a small number of convictions has been handed out in relation to the drug war, including the policemen involved in the killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos and the deaths of Carl Angelo Arnaiz and Reynaldo “Kulot” de Guzman.
The end of the Duterte administration did not mean the end of the killings. Dahas, a project of the University of the Philippines-Diliman Third World Studies Center, documented at least 263 reported drug-related killings under the Marcos administration, as of April 22, 2023.
The dire scenario in the country, compounded by the continued culture of impunity, has pushed many families to pin their hopes on the International Criminal Court (ICC) for a shot at any form of justice.
The ICC pre-trial chamber in January 2023 allowed Prosecutor Karim Khan to reopen his investigation into Duterte’s war on drugs, a move that the Philippine government has appealed. In March, the court’s appeals chamber junked the government’s motion to suspend the ongoing probe while appeals proceedings are ongoing, given the “absence of persuasive reasons.”
The Marcos administration continues to follow Duterte’s playbook when it comes to the ICC. It falsely pointed out that this was an issue of jurisdiction, while allies filed resolutions urging Congress to declare “unequivocal defense” of the former president.
“Alam namin na wala na kaming pag-asa dito sa baba, kahit bago na ang administrasyon, kaya [ICC] na lang iyong inaasahan namin na gagalaw at magbibigay hustisya sa amin,” Vera said.
(We know there is no more hope for us here at the bottom, even if there’s a new administration, so we’re just pinning our hopes on the ICC to move and give us justice.)
Despite progress in proceedings, there is no guarantee of a positive outcome at the ICC. The court has had its own fair share of criticism, including being notorious for long timelines.
But for thousands of families left behind by drug war victims, the ICC represents an institution that is finally listening to their desperate pleas. In March, the court allowed them to share their views, saying that it “considers it appropriate for victims to be involved in these appeals proceedings.”
After years of being ignored and gaslighted, if not harassed, the families are now being given the chance to speak.
“Noong namatay ang asawa ko, gusto ko na ipasa-Diyos lamang kasi wala nang pag-asa akong nakikita sa Pilipinas, pero buti na lamang may mga ganitong katulad ng ICC na gustong tumulong sa amin,” Vera said.
“Kasi kahit takot ako, gusto ko pa rin naman mabigyan ng katarungan ang nangyari sa asawa ko.”
(When my husband died, I wanted to leave it up to the Lord because I was no longer seeing hope in the Philippines, but fortunately there are groups like the ICC that are willing to help us. Even if I’m afraid, I still want to obtain justice for my husband.) – Rappler.com
*Names have been changed for their protection.